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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Driver testifies he wasn’t drunk at time of fatal crash

A Spokane stockbroker admits to drinking alcohol the day his Mercedes crashed into a motorcycle, paralyzing the driver and killing the passenger, but he told jurors he wasn’t drunk.

He’d told the doctor who examined him after the June 2, 2009, crash that he hadn’t had anything to drink because a police officer was in the room, listening.

“I was afraid,” said Jon A. Strine, who is charged with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault for the crash. “I knew (Spokane police Officer Paul) Watson was going to try to pin this on me.”

Strine, 43, wiped away tears during his testimony on Thursday and cried when his lawyer, Carl Oreskovich, asked him if he took “any responsibility” for the crash, which killed Lorri Keller and paralyzed her husband, Gary Keller.

“Yes,” Strine said. “Because I was there. I was driving my car. I didn’t see Gary. He didn’t see me. And I’m sorry … for the accident.”

The prosecutor handling the case, however, questioned if Strine was simply trying to portray himself as a victim to avoid facing responsibility for the deadly collision.

Strine took the stand Thursday, the last day of testimony in the Spokane County Superior Court trial. Closing arguments are expected Tuesday afternoon.

At issue in the trial is a state test that placed Strine’s blood-alcohol level at 0.20, which is more than twice the legal limit for a driver. Defense experts have called the testing method unreliable and say the amount of alcohol Strine consumed that day was not enough to exceed the 0.08 legal limit for driving.

Strine testified Thursday that he drank two Firefly mixed drinks and a Stella Artois draft beer in about two hours at Press bar on South Grand Boulevard before driving Press waitress Jayme Venne to Fast Eddie’s bar on Spokane Falls Boulevard. Venne and her husband had applied for jobs there, and Strine offered to introduce her to the owner.

At the bar, Strine bought a bottle of Fat Tire beer for Venne and a shot of Crown Royal for a friend, then drank a glass and a half of Coors Light and “had a sip or two” of another Crown Royal shot, he testified. They left after about 40 minutes. Strine said he was going to drop Venne off and go home, but he never made it. His Mercedes slammed into the Kellers’ motorcycle at West Fourth Avenue and South Browne Street.

Strine said Thursday that he never saw the motorcycle.

“I was looking in my mirrors, making sure it was safe to get over, and the next thing I remember is a flash and the airbag going off in my face,” Strine said.

“Prior to the airbag going off had you seen the motorcycle?” Oreskovich asked. “No,” Strine replied.

The crash occurred just after Strine had accelerated to make a last-second lane change. Police estimated his speed at 54 mph in the 30 mph zone; Strine said Thursday that he was driving between 35 and 40 mph. Strine said he sat in his Mercedes after the crash “trying to think what the hell just happened.”

“I see Gary Keller on the ground to my left. Then I can see what I perceive is handlebars right in front of me, right in front of the car. And then I hear sirens,” Strine said. Medics then pulled him from the car.

During cross-examination, Deputy Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady focused on the fact that Strine remained in his Mercedes after the crash rather than trying to help the injured.

“You’re not concerned about anybody but yourself at that point,” she said. Strine, who was not injured in the crash, said he was concerned about pain in his neck. “I didn’t think it was a good idea to move,” he said.

He admitted that Watson had no reason to wrongly accuse him but said he knew from the beginning that the officer “was trying to arrest me.”

“So you want us to believe that you were the victim in this case then?” Brady asked Strine.

“Not at all, ma’am,” Strine said.